I am someone who faints. I have fainted in a veterinarian office, in the classroom, in my office, on a high-speed train, in a public shower, and on a mountain in Yunnan waking up outside of the temple next to a mound of blessed horse shit.
The first time I fainted I was five. I can’t remember what I did but I had upset my father about something. Suddenly with a grave tone, he sat me down, and although he was never one for corporal punishment, a more existential dread overtook me in the moment. What did it mean to disappoint your parent? I wondered. My next memory of the event is my frantic mother pleading for me to breathe, breathe, breathe! This was the beginning of my episodes, and my parents started to note when I began to get the look — frozen and pale. I would feel a prickly sensation on the back of my head that crawled down the front of my face as if I had put on a helmet of static. And then, there I’d be on the carpet, tile, pavement; with friends, EMTs, passersby, asking me if I could squeeze their hands. Very confused, I would come to and often weep in the arms of complete strangers. According to doctors, these were not epileptic seizures. My blood work and CAT scans showed nothing abnormal.
Being raised Catholic and obsessed with tragic girl-saints, I wondered if this was the precursor to my own sainthood. Hadn’t Joan of Arc spaced out and had mystical visions of St. Margaret and St. Catherine?
I began wandering about in my grandmother’s garden, staring up at light shooting through needles in the sea pines, humming canticles, waiting for something to happen…for the big divine moment. I was always looking for a sign to explain my sensitivity. A chance to spin around with a sword glittering in medieval France. A way to align myself with the young and savage Milla Jovavich in the Besson film.
I kept fainting, but I did not ride any horses into battle. No one burned me on a stake, fortunately. So perhaps, then, it was secular fainting? Something women in novels did: Southern belles, wilting violets, Victorian hysterics. It certainly felt like a literary illness — unreal — and my friends teased me for suffering from what seemed to be an anachronistic female complaint that had no explanation other than I was utterly and completely overcome by the world — life and its daily tragedies was all simply too much.
Everyone had a materialist theory. It’s the humidity! Did you drink enough water? Have you eaten? You must be exhausted! You work too much! You just forgot to breathe!
To complicate matters I am, in all honesty, a bit ridiculous and known for waxing dramatic. Although I have trained myself not to act out on feelings — cough, cough — most of the time, I still am prone to painting a tiny situation with catastrophic strokes. When I open up to friends about my worries on failing relationships, or a lag in a reply from an editor, I never jump to a reasonable explanation. While some people logically conclude there might be a personal reason their partner is distant or perhaps their editors are just busy, my mind jumps to the conclusion that it is time to break up, and everyone in the office is laughing hysterically at me.
So, I went with the Victorian ailment card. It felt like a charming parlor trick. A little anecdote to tell someone on a first date in lieu of Myers-Briggs typology or food restrictions. But, it was also a way to perform my shame. Because the thing I value most, besides my collection of puffy-sleeved blouses, is my mind. To be unconscious, to be only a body, was terrifying. I felt the burden of my existence. There was a certain brutality in my intellect shutting down; in being all limbs, heavy and mute. I felt the burden of accepting help, physically and financially — a friend having caught me in his arms, others calling the paramedics in Echo Park, and another who charged my ER bill on her credit card (thank you, Madeleine). Furthermore, I felt crazy.
The episodes began happening more frequently. ER visits proved expensive and unhelpful. It was something beyond anxiety. So I had to keep searching.
I have a yoga therapist friend in Berlin who studies trauma and is well-acquainted with my fainting history. This year, he shared a lecture with me on the polyvagal theory. The theory, proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges in the mid 1990s, identifies the relationship between the vagus nerve (tenth cranial nerve) and parasympathetic control of the body — hearts, lungs, and digestion. Simply put, it is the third, lesser-known stress response. It is not only fight or flight, as we had previously understood, but freeze. It is the equivalent of seeing a predator and playing dead. The freeze response is the more primitive reaction when the other two fail.
Understanding this bodily response not only matters on the personal level, but the political. How often have we heard questions posed to a victim in a rape trial: Why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you run? Perhaps the discussion around consent itself becomes even more problematized if a person is in freeze mode. Silence in such circumstances is not acquiescence.
I continued to read more on the polyvagal theory and found in interpersonal relations the freeze response to be a sort of panic button when communication and self-soothing fail. “It’s trauma, Julie. Your body is doing the best it can to protect you,” my German friend told me, correctly. There was a lot in childhood I could not remember, of which I could not make sense and could not find comfort. I had long understood this had led me to addiction, but not to fainting.
I wanted to see if now, finally at 33, I might begin on a path to discovery. I started looking into PTSD and radical treatments, and began working with an incredible EMDR-trained therapist, Leslie Cox, in Orange County. With her, I discussed my problems with stress, relationships, blocked memories, and of course, fainting.
I had never heard of EMDR. According to the EMDR Institute’s website, “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Shapiro’s Adaptive Information Processing model posits that EMDR therapy facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experiences to bring these to an adaptive resolution. After successful treatment with EMDR therapy, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced.”
I am still early in my EMDR treatment, but working with my therapist I already have been able to access memories long-buried. She is a magic listener, and in the environment she creates — almost embryonic in its safety — I’ve been allowed not only to remember, but to feel the experience fully. We have begun locating the emotions in my body and giving them an age: anger is seven and it lives in my hot and tingling hands, shame is five and in the gut, and sadness is four, surrounding my head — my helmet of static.
I am finally moving forward and understanding that sometimes, oftentimes, the world is simply too much. What I needed was not to perform my shame, but to create room for it and exercise compassion for intense childhood experiences. I had to learn to cope. I had to find compassion for the outrageous Southern belle before I could ever find compassion for the little girl.
As it turns out, my mystical inclinations and desire for a sign to affirm my sensitivity did come. Although it did not take the shape of an illumined young virgin descending from the clouds like I may have hoped, what I did find was some recognition of the experiences as they were — messy and expansive. Experiences for which children may not have the right language.
I have not fainted in over a month. And when I do next, this helmet of static feels not like unbearable sadness, not frenetic, not flimsy…but full of holy fire.
Julie Schulte is a writer and educator based in Los Angeles. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Atlantic and is forthcoming in the LA Review of Books. She holds an MFA from UC Irvine and most recently led a series of life writing workshops on writing towards shame. She has a first novel in the works and a six-year-old Capricorn daughter. Their horse phase has miraculously overlapped.